(High Roller 2017)
Jack Starr knows a thing or two about heavy metal. The legendary guitarist is perhaps best known as the founder of Virgin Steele back in 1981, but there is a lot more to his legacy (and his resume) than that career-defining accomplishment. In recent years, Starr’s metal energies have been focused on Jack Starr’s Burning Starr, his post-Virgin Steele band that gave the world such masterworks as 1986’s No Turning Back! and 1987’s Blaze of Glory (the 30th anniversary reissue of which is in the offing). The long-dormant Burning Starr project was rejuvenated in the early 2000s when Starr joined forces with bassist/co-writer Ned Meloni (whose history with Starr goes back to the mid-80s and the bands Devil Childe and Phantom Lord, albeit often under quirky stage names like the unforgettable Klaus Schwartzen and Anton Phibes, haha) and vocalist extraordinaire Todd Michael Hall (also known for his work in Riot V, Reverence and Harlet). The Starr/Meloni/Hall collaboration resulted in the terrific Defiance album in 2009 and the simply jaw-dropping Land of the Dead release in 2011, the latter of which is, in my mind, one of the best U.S. power metal albums of the 2000s. So when it was announced that Burning Starr (also featuring the talents of ex-Manowar / Ross the Boss skin basher Kenny “Rhino” Earl for the last few years) were returning with a new album in 2017 on High Roller Records, the metal world celebrated.
And rightfully so. Stand Your Ground falls very much in line with its predecessors, in terms of both style and quality, and should be a mandatory purchase for anyone remotely interested in pure, classic ‘80s American heavy metal, timeless and true, and unsullied by any hidden agendas or modern accoutrements. The obvious comparators for this record (like the last two) are Riot (and not just because of Hall’s vocal work), prime Manowar and pre-keyboard-obsessed Virgin Steele. That’s elite company, but Burning Starr comfortably hold their own as equals alongside those genre heavyweights. You might think, based on the name of the band (it sounds kinda like Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, right?), that this is some kind of overwrought, guitar-hero, widdly-diddly kind of music. But you would be wrong. Make no mistake, Jack Starr is a tremendously gifted guitar player, with chops for miles and a distinctive, easily recognizable style. But Starr carefully, assiduously avoids falling into the trap of overplaying. His scintillating, tasteful and often brilliant leads serve the songs, rather than the other way around. The same could be said of his bandmates, as well. The level of musicianship in Burning Starr is off the end of the charts, with a pounding rhythm section and, in Hall, arguably the best metal voice of this generation. But the band harness those skills to make their songs the best they can possibly be, resisting the temptation to steal the spotlight from the songs by showing off how high they can sing, how fast they can play, and so on.
So, yes, first and foremost, Stand Your Ground is about the songs, not the players. And what superb songs they are. A glance at the tracklisting and running time suggests that the listener might be in for a patience-trying self-indulgent slog, with 12 songs spanning 75 minutes and just one tune (“Hero”) clocking in under the five-minute mark. That concern evaporates as soon as you sit back and push play. Every one of these tracks is built around catchy hooks, big choruses, sturdy and heroic riffs, and uncomplicated arrangements. Rather than cram as many ideas as they can think of into a song, Burning Starr’s methodology is to come up with a killer, A+ idea, allow it enough air to breathe and develop, and then ride that idea all the way to the heavy metal promised land. There are really aren’t a lot of crazy twists and turns here; rather, these songs are straightforward, mostly mid-paced anthems distilled to the very essence of greatness, without becoming repetitive or boring in any way, even in the course of the nearly ten-and-a-half minute title track. These are the kinds of glorious hymns that, from the first time you hear them, make you want to raise your fist in the air and sing along at the top of your lungs, preferably alongside your metal brothers and sisters at a European festival somewhere with a tasty German hefeweizen or pilsner in hand. Picking out favorites is damn near impossible, but if pressed, I’d take “The Enemy,” “The Sky is Falling,” “Stronger than Steel,” “To the Ends” and “We Are One” by a hair over the others. One heartwarming note about “Stronger than Steel” is that it includes a writing credit to the late, great Rhett Forrester and features a 30-second archival clip (explained in liner notes by Meloni) from a 1980s rehearsal tape of Forrester working on the vocal melodies and cadence for what ultimately became “Stronger than Steel.”
Look, I know there have been a lot of great albums released in 2017. But I’m here to tell you that Stand Your Ground can hold its own with any of them. If anthemic, triumphant U.S. metal with world-class vocals, sterling guitarwork, and timeless, heart-stirring songs is your idea of a good time (and if it isn’t, what are you doing on this website anyway?), then you owe it to yourself to check out what Jack Starr’s Burning Starr have come up with on Stand Your Ground. If the metal gods look kindly upon us, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be graced with an opportunity to hear these songs come to life on stage someday soon.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~